No author has created with less emphasis such pathetic characters as Chekhov has, characters who can often be summed up by the quotation from his story “In the Cart”: “How strange, she reflected, why does God give sweetness of nature, sad, nice, kind eyes, to weak, unhappy useless people – and why are they so attractive?” (Vladimir Nabokov, Lectures on Russian Literature, 1981, p. 250)
Yesterday I called Anton Chekhov’s “Vanka” (1886) the “most pathetic story ever written,” which is likely wrong, but it must be a strong contender. Vanka is nine years old, and has recently been apprenticed to a Moscow shoemaker. His new life is “miserable, worse than a dog’s” – brutal, cold, pinched. When we meet him he is writing a secret letter to his grandfather in the village, begging to be allowed to return to his old life. Chekhov might tell the tragic story of how the boy is discovered, how he is unable to deliver his letter, and then the soft-hearted reader could enjoy feeling sorry for the poor fellow. But no – Vanka succeeds in writing and sending the letter, making the reader – me – feel even worse. Oh, it is so sad. The ending:
An hour later, lulled by sweet hopes, he was fast asleep. In his dreams he saw the stove. On the stove sat his grandfather, his bare legs hanging down, and read the letter to the cooks. Near the stove was Wriggles, wagging his tail. (tr. Avrahm Yarmolinsky, The Portable Chekhov).
Well, that doesn’t sound so bad. What am I talking about? Everything’s going to work out great.
Another five pager for the newspapers, “Vanka” has an ingenious structure, mixing the boy’s letter with his memories of the village. These early Chekhov stories have so little room that one setting is usually all he has room for, but he is able to interleave two in this case. Wriggles has “a black coat and a long body like a weasel’s”; the shoemaker’s wife “jabbed me in the mug” with a herring; the Moscow shops have “fishing-hooks for sale all fitted up with a line, for every kind of fish” (the nine year old letter writer sometimes has trouble staying focused); please reserve a gilt walnut from the master’s Christmas tree and “put it away in the little green chest.”
Did I mention that Vanka is writing his clandestine letter on Christmas Eve? Laying it on a little thick, don’t you think, Anton?
Chekhov’s books are sad books for humorous people; that is, only a reader with a sense of humor can really appreciate their sadness… Things for him were funny and sad at the same time, but you would not see their sadness if you did not see their fun, for both were linked up. (VN, 252)
“Vanka” is a funny story, yes it is. The kid’s situation truly is bad, and the little twist at the end really is a heartbreaker? But the plot is also a kind of cosmic joke, one with a setup and punchline, the saddest funniest joke, and that’s aside from Vanka insisting in his letter that his grandfather not “give my harmonica to anyone.” Why are these creatures so attractive?